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Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

An outrage that appalled a nation

Exactly 100 years after two robbers went on a shooting rampage in a London suburb, the dead victims are being officially remembered. But the shocking details of the "Tottenham Outrage" still offer parallels with current events.

PC William Tyler
PC Tyler was shot at point-blank range while trying to arrest the robbers

It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie - two outlaws rampaging through the streets chased by police and public, while firing more than 400 rounds of ammunition at their pursuers.

Throw in concerns about politically-motivated terrorists, uncontrolled immigration and police tactics not keeping pace with the villains' methods, and you have a thoroughly modern seeming incident.

But this was 23 January 1909. The two robbers killed a police officer and a 10-year-old boy in Tottenham, north London, as they tried to escape with the 80 wages they had snatched from a rubber factory.

The chase, which left 21 people injured, appalled the nation. The Times gave an indication of the shock generated by the incident when it reported thus: "An amazing series of outrages, singularly rare if not entirely without parallel in a civilized country, occurred on Saturday forenoon in the neighbourhood of Tottenham marshes."

The drama unfolded when two Latvian immigrants, Paul Hefeld and Jacob Lapidus, targeted Schnurmann's rubber factory, on the corner of Tottenham High Road and Chestnut Road.

When the chauffeur-driven car carrying the wages clerk arrived, they produced pistols and grabbed the cash bag, firing at the chauffeur before fleeing.


The commotion attracted the attention of PCs William Tyler and Albert Newman in the neighbouring police station, and a long chase with the chauffeur's car, plus people on foot and horseback, began.

Ten-year-old Ralph Joscelyne, who was helping a baker with his deliveries, was killed in the crossfire as he ran to take cover alongside the car at Mitchley Road.

Ordinary citizens joined in the chase in a display of civic values I'm not sure you would get today
Martin Belam

PC Tyler managed to catch up with the men, shouting, "Come on, give in, the game's up." Hefeld shot him in the face at point-blank range, and the officer bled to death in a nearby house.

As the chase continued, it became more frenetic as the men commandeered a tram. Police jumped into another tram, and the occupants of the two vehicles exchanged fire.

After leaping from the tram, the men jumped onto a milk-cart and set off towards Epping Forest, while continuing to fire at their pursuers, but overturned it on a corner.

They then stole a greengrocer's cart but did not realise the brake was still on, so could not force the horse to travel any faster than an amble.

King's medal

Fleeing, the "anarchist robbers" were quickly cornered. Hefeld shot himself in the head to evade capture, and was taken to hospital where he died three weeks later.

Lapidus carried on running and locked himself in the bedroom of nearby Oak Cottage, where he used his final bullet to kill himself as officers fired through the door at him.

Ralph Joscelyne
Flowers will be laid on Ralph Joscelyne's grave

As well as representing a shift in the history of criminality in the UK, the episode was remarkable for the response of the officers and passers-by, says local historian Martin Belam.

"You also have to think about how brave the police were. The two robbers were shooting to kill, over 20 people were injured. They were constantly firing back into the crowd.

"Ordinary citizens joined in the chase in a display of civic values I'm not sure you would get today."

In the aftermath there were questions over the police's ability to respond, with the modern revolvers possessed by the robbers contrasted with the police's lack of preparedness.

"The police couldn't get into their weapon cabinet because someone had lost the key. One of the policeman just got a weapon off someone in the crowd. People were going around packing heat. All these firearms started appearing."

When Pc Tyler's funeral was held half-a-million people and 3,000 police officers lined the two-and-a-half mile route. The blinds of all the houses en route were drawn, shops were closed for the day and flags flown at half-mast.

In the aftermath, questions were asked about the dangers of immigration.

The Daily Mirror reported the occasion on its front page on 30 January with the heading: "Police constable Tyler, who was murdered by alien terrorists at Tottenham, given a hero's funeral."

Gallantry medal

The Times quoted a much-travelled costumier, Charles Lee, who had been "astounded at the ease with which the roughest looking aliens landed on our shores". There were letters criticising the government's enforcement of immigration legislation.

"Across Europe at that time you had anarchists and proto-terrorists, these underground armed groups," says Mr Belam.

The joint funeral procession
Half a million people and 3,000 police officers lined the funeral route

"[Members] had managed to get over to Britain and for the first time people realised the government didn't have much control over who was coming in.

"There is the fear that somehow immigrants are a fifth column in the country that are going to overthrow civilised values."

The outrage fed into already existing paranoia about immigration, connected to the 1905 Aliens Act, says Deborah Hedgecock, curator of the Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham.

"The outrage was particularly fuelled by the media. Lots of stories were being made up against immigrants who had moved into the area."

The incident sparked formal acknowledgement of police bravery. The King's Police Medal was established in recognition of the gallantry of the police officers who had chased the pair.

The citation said: "The commissioner is commanded to convey to the police officers engaged in the tragedy at Tottenham the King's high appreciation of their gallant conduct."

The incident will be remembered 100 years on as police and family members of those involved, plus pupils from Earlsmead School which Ralph Joscelyne had attended, will lay wreaths at the victims' graves.

They will then go to Tottenham police station to unveil a plaque in memory of Pc Tyler.

Deborah Hedgecock, curator of Bruce Castle Museum in Tottenham, will give a talk on the outrage at 1930 GMT on Wednesday 28 January.

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